Before continuing, I have to make a confession: I did not have high hopes for the Nix at the start. It was a recommendation from a French English professor (who I must add, is a thoroughly wonderful woman), and my fear was for a book of false profondeur, of moralizing tint, of a view of the United States which would be, not a mockery, but rather a cut-out figure that would be appreciated without being a true expression of American life. There was the cover: the field of hippies, bedecked with the American flag. The beginning chapter had done little to raise my hopes, an old radical hippy as it was presented, throwing stones at a far right governor, and before me danced a vision of what I expected the rest of the book to be... I had read a book like that before, whose name escapes me and for some reason has vanished from my collection, with the self-righteous portrayal of the brave few political dissidents engaged in their rebellion against authority, playing your emotions in that you had to support them, because they were few and their enemies were large faceless corporations, the characters dull but easy to sympathize with because they were powerless and under attack. Doubtless, I thought, the Nix would be like that, crassly shoving its political dogma down our throats, another tale of the good old days of the 1960s and the dream of righteous innocence smashed by a callous and brutal world.
I had done a grave disservice to The Nix, for the story that was revealed to me was not one of a Turkish chess robot which controls behind the scenes the manipulation of the reader's emotions, but rather a brilliantly and beautifully written story of personal discovery in an unfolding plot which seamlessly brings together different times and different people, characters who are all deeply human, people who are flawed and sometimes heroic, people with their weaknesses and strength, people who live life and make bad decisions and fail and run away and stay and fight and love and despair. It follows two people at heart, a mother and her son, between Samuel and his mother Faye. Faye, not the old hippy unjustly accused of a crime as one would assume, although a crime she did commit, and her son, who must write a story about her to please his publisher, to write something to pay off his debts and fulfill his contract. Around them revolve character after character... Periwinkle, the publisher - a man who at first seems like an odd oxymoron, the intensely cynical and jaded liberal publisher, whose secrets reveal themselves in time, "Pwnage" (his name online) the video gamer friend of Samuel, Laura, the ankle-biting excuse-for-a-student of Samuel, Bishop, Samuel's childhood friend, Alice who actually is an old and now repented hippy, Charlie, a vindictive retired police officer-turned-judge with a decided grievance, Frank, the father of Faye, an ex-Norwegian who stands at the heart of what seems like the intractable problems which have plagued them for so long... the cast moves with incredible dexterity, as Nathan Hill both writes the old, and addled perhaps, but certainly not feeble mind of Frank, the addicted and crazed wreck of Pwnage, Bishop in the hot sands of Iraq... such an impressive theater of characters, all kept together and playing their part in an elaborate play, as a son races to discover the story of his mother who had left him decades before, elaborately wrapping together this great tapestry that leaves the reader constantly craving more, is something that stuns the mind.
But it is the beautifully done detail which truly makes the novel shine, the poignant look upon a society which seems increasingly in a slow feeling of collapse and crisis, or perhaps to put it more accurately, a helpless disintegration - never a rapid implosion, or an explosion, just one where the power of the individual to affect the vast body of the state and the masses. Even little details, the story of discussion between Samuel and his father, with his father's story of his lost job and the eating contest on the TV displayed in all of its crass decadence, a man eating a vast plate of food in a ghoulish remembrance of 9/11 from its name, strike the reader: every word and every scene has been carefully chosen and written. But the genius of The Nix is that, and I cannot do the same in my impoverished writing next to it, it manages to weave this all into a tapestry without turning it into the ennui of an assault upon the reader, of using it instead to elevate within its serried legions of pages the individual, the story of the characters, and their relationships and struggles. Simply commenting upon society can become very blasé quite quickly indeed, but the human story and tragedies which compose it are by far the more interesting thing, and it is the genius of Hill to be able to both produce a cutting view of America, in the fine old traditions of the Great American Novel, while using it as scintillating spotlight upon the elaborate dance of the characters within, as they go through the elaborate notions of their story and twirl to and apart from each other, as one pries at a puzzle of time to discover the past and its nightmarish grip upon the present.
This cutting vision of America is married to a prescient and revealing centerpiece of the story: how contrived it all is by outside influence. Periwinkle, the publisher who creates Nathaniel's entire arc, is an excellent representation of the power of modern media to create and fabricate stories. We live in an era where there is increasingly less and less that is "real," where stories are astroturfed, created and managed by savvy PR managers and corporations, where vast sections of the public sphere are outright owned or carefully structured by corporate interests who do not simply report on the news, but define what it is. Hill's book shows this in Periwinkle's contriving of creating Nathaniel's status as a writer, in the deus ex machina from above which pressures and controls him.
The very style of prose can be fascinating, as the author cavorts with a conversation between Samuel and his student Laura, accused of cheating, which is structured like a professor's analysis of the logical fallacies in his subject's speech, to a section styled like a choose-your-own-adventure novel as Samuel's memories try to structure his life into his preferred format, to a 10 page stream-of-consciousness-single-sentence work of the breakdown of Pwnage as his abused and shattered body finally gives out on him, as he dies in his game and comes so terribly close in person... Innovation marries itself to soul and wit, to make a book which never feels like a distraction or a bore, but always like another adventure, one which one shall always choose to read more of. It drags you in, sucks you into reading, and doesn't let you go until you reach the end, filled with the simultaneous joy of having completed such a magnificent tale and the sadness that after such an epic, that its pages at last draw to an end.
History repeats, the first time as a tragedy, the second time as a comedy, and it is this capability to latch onto the absurd, to find the links, the connections across time between the hot summer of 1968, between the timeless days of the late 1980s, between the 1848-esque days of 2011, that great upwelling of revolution which amounts to nothing, which serves to complete it all, making a novel which grips onto half a century of the American experience, and creates from it a single, unified, and tantalizingly ambitious story, one truly worthy of the title of a great american novel, as a representation of a society, its feelings, and its nature in a particular moment in time, captured in the inky web of writing that stretches across page and page, a testament to the hopes, dreams, tears, and fears of a nation and a people.
This all being said, my particular affection for writing has always adored the great accumulation of details, of complexity of plots, of intricacy and turns. If you find the idea of reading a novel which exceeds by far 600 pages, filled with intricate and dense writing throughout, elegant in its byzantine layout of twisting paths and the beauty of its prose, then you will struggle with The Nix. But if you are willing to put the effort into it, it is a book which will keep you reading for hours and hours, for days and days, traversing through the forking paths of time, relationships, people, and life, in an elaborate theater that finds the humanity of the individual among the vastness and insanity of this world.
© 2018 Ryan Thomas